Why Advance Ordering An iPhone 4S Can Be A Trap

I spent yesterday creating and then updating our Planhacker guide to iPhone 4S pricing, on a busy day which saw Telstra and Virgin Mobile announce their iPhone 4S plans and Vodafone release details of its 12-month contract offers. The big lesson for consumers from that experience? Advance ordering a phone before you know the full competitive landscape could be a costly mistake.

Apple started taking advance orders for the unlocked iPhone 4S last Friday, and within 24 hours had moved from saying it would ship phones on October 14 to saying there would be a one or two week delay on shipments. Optus followed on Saturday night with details of its contract plans, and Vodafone wasn’t far behind.

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Having a shortage of supply has always been part of Apple’s strategy; it makes its phones seem more desirable, and ensures that there’ll be people queuing for store openings, in turn guaranteeing an interesting image for TV news broadcasts. It also has the effect of making many people sign up as soon as they spot a plan that looks suitable, rather than waiting for all the facts.

But this is not the ideal way of getting yourself the best deal for a phone, whoever it is from. For instance, if you had been contemplating signing up with Vodafone — say because it has the cheapest plans with unlimited domestic calls and you use your phone as a phone a lot — you might well have signed up on Saturday, concerned that otherwise you’d be waiting a long time for a new device. At that stage, you would only have had the option of a 24-month contract.

Had you waited until Wednesday or beyond, you’d also have had the option of a 12-month plan. True, the overall handset charges would have been higher, but if you don’t want to be locked onto a handset for a full two years, that might have been an appealing choice.

Optus did reveal both its 12 and 24 month plans on Saturday, but even then buying straight away might not have been sensible. If you wanted an “unlimited” plan, Virgin’s Topless deal is slightly cheaper than Optus’ equivalent — but we didn’t know that on Saturday.

I suspect many buyers had already decided in advance that they wanted to sign up with Telstra, which merely meant waiting until Telstra revealed its pricing. Right now Telstra doesn’t wholesale its mobile network, so there wouldn’t have been any alternative choices. But even in this scenario, knowing what rival carriers are charging is useful information even if you ultimately decide that network reliability is your main consideration.

The important lesson? If you’re buying a phone on a 24-month contract, you’re going to have it for a long time. Better to wait and have all the facts, even if that means a delay in getting the device you want, rather than ordering early just to be the first person on your block testing Siri.

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